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Just how golden is silence?


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For the British, itʼs well known social law that in several, if not most, public spaces, silence is key. Those who dare speak in a London tube carriage, particularly during rush hours, are condemned to receive dirty looks from other passengers for the duration of their journey. Waiting for a bus? No, now is simply not the time to discuss last nightʼs Corrie. And woe betide the poor, poor individual who fails to stifle his or her sneeze in an art gallery.

Yet in recent years, it would appear that the ascent of the portable electronic device has meant that the world is no longer merely our oyster, but also our … office. Weʼre able to reply to e-mails, finish our essays and fill out tax returns just about anywhere. As a result of this modernisation, we find ourselves placing excess value on the level of quiet. As students, Iʼm sure weʼve all been there. Ever tried to study in a coffee shop and found yourself infuriated by the precise details of your neighbourʼs gallstones?

Todayʼs smartphones, tablets and lightweight laptops allow us to blur the boundary between work and play, which is many respects is fantastic. However, this ease of use sometimes prevents us from being our natural, social selves at times when this is required. Just ask Alex Haigh, the Australian founder of tongue-in-cheek This site campaigns against the Ê»phubbingʼ phenomena – a term coined by Haigh which hybridises Ê»phone snubbingʼ.

Whatever happened to the beauty of mundane conversation? You know, of the glorious Ê»Would you look at the weather!ʼ or the Ê»Howʼs your dog?ʼ variety? I for one have sat through many an awkward mid-tutorial break, twiddling my thumbs as those around me reach for their iPhones. Eventually, I too cave. Clearly everyone in the room is extremely sociable – if this can be judged by a sky-high Snapchat score. Yet through some unfortunate twist of fate, it just so happens that the exact individuals my tutees absolutely must speak to are anywhere but our current classroom.

Spontaneous phone-enthusiasm is most definitely a 21st century malady. And itʼs one weʼve prescribed ourselves to avoid our dreaded fear of awkward silences. Of course, conversation with near-strangers (or even friends) can be difficult. When asked how I am, I often struggle to think of a more varied answer than merely ʻfineʼ. Sometimes, I am not fine, and instead concerned with various job applications, endless seminar reading and a formidable pile of washing up in my kitchen. However, actually managing to expand on my current state of mind usually leads to a conversation I donʼt regret having.

Chit-chat is rather like going to the gym – arduous at first, but afterwards youʼre pleased you made the effort. However, a sudden and excessive interest in any technology we have on our person gives those around us the impression that itʼs them we want to avoid, not the Ê»er …ʼ that may result from wondering what to say next.

Of course, quiet is entirely appropriate in a number of situations. However, the small talk which develops into great conversation is at risk of being phased out by easily accessible 3G. After all, it is the opportunity to totally relax and engage with our peers, as well as the exciting possibilities that just might arise from a polite ʻHow are you?ʼ, that should remain truly golden.

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